It’s an increasingly common lament that computers have ruined everything, and a longing for the days before Google and Twitter, when everything was somehow more organic and authentic, is on the rise. As someone who can remember writing early reviews on an electric typewriter and then going to the library to fax them to a literary journal, I’m partial to this kind of unplugged nostalgia myself. But it can get out of hand.
So it does in this book — ambitiously titled to evoke John Berger’s classic of art criticism, Ways of Seeing — which explains that computers have wrecked music along with everything else. Early on, Damon Krukowski rails against the soulless practice of recording to a ‘click track’ (a totally regular electronic beat), saying that this began in the late 1980s. In fact, though, mechanical metronomes provided click tracks in the studio long before computerised drum machines existed. According to Ian MacDonald’s definitive account of the Beatles, Revolution in the Head, the recording of ‘Penny Lane’ began with the piano parts being laid down one over another, and Paul probably played them to a click track to keep in time.
Krukowski also thinks that the slight ‘latency’ or delay introduced by digital recording (to give the computer time to process things) is ‘not like anything we experience in real time’. But we do experience latency in everything we hear, because sound takes time to travel to our ears. If you sit ten feet away from a speaker, you’re experiencing more latency than a modern digital studio introduces. And before the renovation of Big Ben began, if you stood on Westminster Bridge just before 6 p.m. with an FM radio, you would hear the bongs on the radio before you heard them in real life — because radio is transmitted at the speed of light, while sound ambles along much more slowly.
What else is wrong with the digital age? Krukowski complains that people in cities now walk around with earbuds or headphones, solipsistically removing themselves from the public soundscape. But we said exactly the same thing about the analogue-cassette-based Sony Walkman, the first model of which was released 40 years ago. Krukowski also laments that people don’t talk now on the phone because digital mobiles sound so bad compared with old phones. There is something to this, but it is not because, as he complains, old landlines transmitted ‘the full range of sound’ of the voice: they threw away everything apart from a narrow frequency band.
Thanks to its origins as a podcast, this brief book does contain some nice snippets of anecdote and interview. I enjoyed Krukowski’s account of meeting the composer John Cage, who worked in his Manhattan studio with the windows always open, because ‘there was so much to listen to all the time’. He has a sweet conversation with his jazz-singer mother, and towards the end he talks to a music distributor who makes a vivid case for resisting the dissolution of music into total immateriality. ‘If you think about it,’ he says,
digital music is like grains of sand or something at the beach… it just goes as far as you can see. And there’s… no reason to think that any one of those grains is any better than any of the others. You would never build a shelf to store your grains of sand.
True enough; so feel free to fondle your vinyl. For Krukowski, though, all digital culture is dehumanising because it represents an excessive focus on signal at the expense of chaotic human noise. He illustrates this point by claiming that, if you make music entirely within a computer, using ‘virtual instruments’, it will sound bad. ‘The reason is that virtual instruments are all signal,’ he pseudo-explains. ‘As you pile them up, you don’t get a richness of noise. You get a bunch of competing signals.’ This will come as a surprise to producers of modern electronic dance music made entirely within computers, which certainly sounds rich enough to its off-their-tits admirers.
The annoying inaccuracies and biases of Ways of Hearing are perhaps explained well enough at the point that Krukowski confesses he used to be a drummer; or, as the old definition has it, someone who hangs out with musicians. What’s more, he was the drummer in an American alt-rock band, Galaxie 500. Many drummers are notoriously sensitive about having their timing corrected digitally in the studio, and 1990s indie/grunge acts generally hated dance music and computers. So he is in a way the perfect person to take grand, if so often mistaken, offence at the digital revolution. He might be consoled were someone to remind him that, however it is recorded and processed, all the sound we ever hear is still analogue, made by pushing air around.